Death Figures

In my last post I showed a couple of cups that had a cherry tree in full bloom. The image probably evoked two main emotions: a longing and love for the homeland, and a wistful awareness of the fragility and shortness of life. Today I’d like to show you another image that no doubt made the viewer aware of death, but not of the beauty of life. It is the skull.

Skulls have not been a part of the traditional Japanese symbolism. Perhaps they are too transparent in their meaning. While the cherry blossom image is varied and fairly sublime, the skull is blatant and forceful. Perhaps, too, the skull image is not suited for an object like the sake cup. Since many retired soldiers received or purchased the military cups, it is probable that they didn’t want to be reminded of death while they were enjoying a drink. (That is, if these types of ceremonial cups were ever actually used…)

Anyway, finding a skull image on a Japanese military cup is quite difficult. Throughout my ten years or so in dealing with these cups, I have only found one. Here it is:

Skull cup with blossoms and petals

Skull cup with blossoms and petals

 It is a striking design, isn’t it? Lacquered wood with a thin silver gilt. There are the ubiquitous cherry blossoms as well as some petals, but their presence here seems secondary to the dominant central image. And while oftentimes cherry blossoms are included in designs to add beauty and color (as well as meaning), these are simple, uncolored devices to underscore the message of the skull.

Looking at the inscription: The two kanji in the bowl read ‘Fallen [or Scattered] Blossoms [散華]. Not subtle at all. On the reverse, this is written: ’55th [Graduating] Class, 8th Squadron [中隊chuutai], 3rd Section [区隊kutai].’

By the inscription we can know that this was certainly a soldier’s cup, and that one was probably made for each graduating member of the 55th Class. Since detailed company numbers follow, we can assume that this was a military academy.

But why a skull? Skulls can be found on some unit flags in the Pacific War (see photo below), but other than that they are scarcely to be found on other Japanese items. Trying to discover motive and cause behind a cup design may seem fruitless, but it seems like the skull image conveys a more defiant attitude toward death. (Somewhat like the American phrase ‘Bring it on!’)

My impression: Blossoms suggest a passive acceptance of the inevitable; skulls suggest an aggressive indifference to the inevitable. However, since the latter rarely appear on military-themed items in Japan (most of which were also made for civilian use), this indifference may not have been widespread, or perhaps it was suppressed.

Anyway, if you find a skull or similar image on a sake cup, you have found a rare treasure.

Here is the photo I referred to earlier. Taken in the Phillippines, circa 1942-3:

'Yoshida Unit, Imoto Unit'

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Published in: on September 11, 2008 at 11:25 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. I have found some photos with japanese military unit with Scull&Bones simbols. I have very little info on it, just that it was special strike unit, may be cavalry, under command of Lieutenant Ikegami, in Manchuria 1933.


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